As I walked into the lobby of Hoover Leppen Theatre at the Center on Halsted, I was dumbfounded. Everywhere around me were ecstatic teenage (and some college) girls covered with Starkid memorabilia including tattoos, sunglasses, tshirts, sweatshirts, and wristbands. What had I gotten myself into? I wondered. I felt like I was back at an N’Sync concert from the 1990s. I had heard about the incredibly dedicated fan base for Team Starkid ever since their internet sensation A Very Potter Musical went viral and Me and My Dick made it to the Billboard charts, but I was not anticipating this kind of raging fanfare. Despite my reservations about the uncontrolled teen angst around me, I was more than a bit surprised at Team Starkid’s creative, colorful, and upbeat musical, Starship. Directed by Matt Lang with music and Lyrics by Glee’s Darren Criss, this comedy musical was, despite its 3+ hour length, a remarkably well-put together, ensemble production about a future world inhabited by alien bugs that gets intercepted by the human race.
In addition to very well done acting and singing, two aspects of this production particularly stood out to me. Firstly, this production team is made up almost exclusively of young adults in their mid 20’s (most of whom are graduates of the University of Michigan’s drama program). Their ability to write and direct, compose, act and sing, and turn their love for theater into an actual business is remarkable. Their theatrical creativity mixed with their entrepreneurship is just astonishing for their age and something I don’t think I have ever experienced in the professional theater world. Secondly, the ensemble nature of this production is really unique---almost every actor that is part of this 13-person team takes on some sort of supporting role. Impressively, each actor quickly and smoothly transforms from one character to the next, dramatically altering the physical appearance and emotional behavior of their previous character.
Because of the less serious, more farcical content of the show and because of the entirely young cost and crew, I would recommend this production for younger audiences. While very well done with creative original writing by several members of the cast, the alient-bug-spaceship foundation of the play is probably not suited to an older crowd.
Joey Richter, who plays the lead role of Bug does a wonderful job taking us through the world of alien insects and of sharing the story of his life and aspirations to be a Starship Ranger. An innocent and awkward young bug with a raspy voice to match, Bug is naïve about love and longs for something more than the world in which he is destined. Richter commits himself to his character and remains consistent throughout.
Lauren Lopez, who plays the two very opposite characters of Taz and Bugette is a major standout---every time I watched her I was in sheer awe of how amazing she was. She goes from playing the very young, starry-eyed, introverted role of Bugette to playing the aggressive, take charge, warlike role of Taz. Her entire demeanor changes between these two characters. As Bugette, she has a nasley, pre-pubescent voice, her body is hunched over and almost cocoon-like, and when she laughs and cries, you think she is throwing up. As human Taz, she is upright and tall, aggressive and sergeant-esque always ready to attack someone, with a thick Spanish military accent to boot. When she transformed from one character to the next, sometimes within no more than a 60 second timeframe, I could not believe she was the same person. She is clearly a committed character actor to to look out for.
Dylan Saunders (Tootsie Noodles, Pincer) was another one of the stand-out talented and transformational actors. His nerdy, god-fearing, mama’s boy portrayal of Tootsie Noodles, one of the Starship Rangers, was a delight to watch, as was his very fearful, ominous portrayal of the evil gang leader of the bugs, Pincer. His blues-like song Kick it Up a Notch demonstrated his very talented singing capabilities as well. Other memorable characters were ditzy blonde February ( Denise Donovan), sweet and dedicated bug, Roach ( Brant Cox), and basically, the rest of the cast!
Every character in Starship was big and bold (there was little to no subtlety to any of the parts), which gave the production an added flare of color and excitement. One of the very impressive elements of this production was the incorporation of puppets. Each alien insect was not a played by a standard actor playing the part, but rather by a puppet being maneuvered by the actor. The puppets themselves were aesthetically noteworthy, some bigger than life, some quite small, each with moveable arms, legs, and a neck. I was most impressed by the ability of the actors to maneuver these puppets as they simultaneously acted, sang, and danced around in character. Many characters even had to learn how to maneuver 2-3 puppets as the actors took on many supporting parts as well. Moreover, knowing that rehearsals for the show only began just over a month before opening night, I was ever the more impressed.
Additionally, while much of the play was farcical and outlandish (this is the world of alien bugs and spaceship odysseys, after all!), there were still some truthful elements and themes that could be taken away. The commander , Up, played by Joseph Walker, is outwardly a bully who inspires fear in his team of Starship Rangers, when really inwardly he lacks the most elemental levels of confidence. He admits that to boost his levels of confidence, every day he stares in the mirror and proclaims to himself, “you’re not a failure.” In order to gain respect from his colleagues and be seen as a dignified leader, he exhibits a sharp, biting exterior when really deep inside, he is gushy and in desperate need of affirmation. He portrays precisely what many people in our world are like who lack self esteem and/or a group of cohorts from which to gain support. Bug ( Joey Richter), also displays another important theme of the show-that of fitting in with the rest of society or discovering one’s own unique self identity. Bug is fated to be the Overqueen’s Egg Planter when really all he wants is to be a Starship Ranger. All of the other bugs from the land that he comes from willingly and happily accept their role serving the Overqueen, but Bug wants something more out of life---something that the society in which he is from is not giving him. Through a mix of fate and freewill, he is able to realize his dreams and become a Starship Ranger. Though, as an added caveat, once he becomes a Starship Ranger, and thus a human, he realizes how much he misses his home—where he came from. Ultimately he decides not to forsake the world from which he came and rather decides to combine the elements of his dream with the elements of his heart and home.
My one main criticism of the show: way too long! Over 3 hours in length, this show could easily have been (and should have been) cut in half. While the actors are a delight to watch throughout, the length of the show ultimately served to undermine their efforts and made me as an audience members inclined to look down at my watch more than a few times.
Ultimately, I would best describe this show as “High School Musical” meets “Avenue Q” meets “Star Wars” meets “Glee” (wow, what a wordful!). This group of young artists really makes you realize how much talent and energy there is in the up and coming generation, and I look forward to seeing what Starkid Productions comes up with next.
Their captivating original storyline, actor-actor collaboration, big and bold characters, and creative use of puppetry really helped this comedic musical succeed.
Oh, and one more thing--- just as I began entering the lobby of the Hoover Leppen Theatre, as I inconspicuously exited, I again found myself swarmed by those overly delighted teenage girls who literally worship Team StarKid. This time, after a successful production, they massed around each of the actors and got dozens of autographs and photos. No surprise there!
Hoover Leppen Theatre , 3656 N. Halsted St Chicago 60613, 773-472-6469. www.centeronhalsted.org
Show dates: February 11-23
Photos by Chris Dzombak